Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.1: Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily?

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen. The month kicks off with his debut film, 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

Grade: 55 (B-)
Woody Allen made a name for himself in stand-up comedy five years before making his directorial debut, and he had preceded that with years of work writing for television and other comedians. A year before What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,  Allen wrote his first film, What’s New, Pussycat?, (although it was later released in a highly compromised form). Not seven months after the release of his first film, Allen’s first play, Don’t Drink the Water, debuted on Broadway. It is safe to say, then, that Allen had developed his comedic voice and persona by this point. Yet What’s Up, Tiger Lily? only fitfully captures Allen’s voice adequately.
What’s Up, Tiger Lily? is not a standard Woody Allen film, but rather a pair of Japanese spy films re-dubbed to feature silly dialogue. The plot (in the loosest sense of the word) involves Phil Moscowitz, a secret agent of some sort, who has been hired by the Grand Exalted Majah of Raspur (described as a “nonexistent but real-sounding country”). The Majah explains to Moscowitz that he needs to get his country on the map, and the only way to do that is to come up with the greatest egg salad recipe in the world (why egg salad? “Don’t ask me, I have enough aggravation”). The Majah’s recipe has been stolen by gangster Shepherd Wong. Moscowitz and his aides, Teri Yaki and Suki Yaki, team up to find the recipe, but they may have some competition in Wing Fat, another gangster.
The plot makes absolutely no sense, but then, that’s the idea. Besides, how often do spy movie plots make sense anyway? There’s really no subtext to What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, it’s all just dubbing silly dialogue into another movie. The film’s humor is very hit-and-miss. When it hits, it’s very funny. When it misses, it’s deadly. The problem is that while the film does often feature Allen’s trademark wit, it features too many voices, in more than one way. The film has seven writers, and the quality of the jokes varies accordingly from funny witticisms to irritating, dated 1960s gags. It doesn’t help that too many of the dubbed voices are straining very, very hard to be as goofy as possible (Peter Lorre impression? Funny. Dopey henchman impression? Not funny). Stangely, the voices occasionally cut out to leave the audience watching a subpar spy film completely straight; Mystery Science Theatre 3000 this isn’t.  The clearest sign of artistic compromise, however, is a soundtrack from the rock group The Lovin’ Spoonful. At completely random intervals, the Spoonful appears on screen to sing a mediocre song. This becomes increasingly irritating, and it’s clear that this was put in against Allen’s wishes: the man famously dislikes rock and roll.
Still, it’s possible to see a Woody Allen film in there, somewhere, if one squints hard enough. The film shares certain traits with some of Allen’s “early, funny films”: an absurd plot, silly character names (Phil Moscowitz, Shepherd Wong), and a good handful of witty gags. The director makes a few onscreen appearances, the best of the bunch being a brief interlude where an interviewer asks Allen to explain the plot to the viewers, just in case they’re lost. His answer: “No.” For what it is, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? is funny enough lark. It’s just not a very remarkable debut, nor is it a strong introduction to the world and comic styling of one Woody Allen. Those new to Allen would best start with his next film, Take the Money and Run, instead.

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